Feeling SAD? Here’s How You Can Beat the Winter Blues

winter blues

As another snowstorm barrels toward the already-buried Northeast this weekend, some folks have had just about all they can take.

Dr. Steve Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote this week that he has “developed a new sympathy for my daughter’s hamster,” on WBUR’s Common Health blog.

“She’s seen the same cage, the same scene, the same everything, day in and day out,” Schlozman wrote. “But alas, my kid’s hamster cannot work scissors, or a remote control for the television, or engage in any sort of higher order thinking.”

But too much time for thinking in the winter can lead to trouble. Millions of Americans experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The condition is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s a type of depression, with symptoms such as:

• Sad, anxious or “empty” feelings

• Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism

• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness

• Irritability, restlessness

• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy

• Fatigue and decreased energy

• Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions

• Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping

• Changes in weight

• Thoughts of death or suicide

While the specific cause of SAD remains unknown, researchers have narrowed down a few factors that may come into play.

“Our inner clock, whose timing cycle does not necessarily match day and night outdoors, needs to stay in sync with rest-activity cycles dictated by family and work life,” says Michael Terman, a professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. “This is both very disorienting and a trigger for mood slumps and depression.”

“Since the inner clock relies on sunlight to stay in sync, winter sunrise is later and winter nights are longer, melatonin can overshoot into the day, causing grogginess or ‘brain fog,’ for several hours,” Terman says. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles.

Serotonin, one of many brain chemicals that affect mood, also varies seasonally, with lower levels in winter.

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is diagnosed more often in women than in men, but men typically experience more severe symptoms. Younger people have a higher risk of SAD, and those affected are more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.

So, how can you beat the winter blues? You’ve got a few options:

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Ben Tinker